The hoax that never was

The annals of history are full of hoaxes.  They come in all shapes and sizes, Piltdown Man, the Cottingley fairies and the Hitler Diaries to name but a few.  Less well known are the occasions when people thought they were being hoaxed but weren’t, occasions when reality had the last laugh.  The platypus falls into this category: it is the hoax that never was.

When British scientist George Shaw received from Australia the desiccated skin of an unknown creature in 1798 he examined it and then wrote:

‘Of all the Mammalia yet known it seems the most extra-ordinary in its conformation; exhibiting the perfect resemblance of the beak of a Duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped.  So accurate is the similitude, that, at first view, it naturally excites the idea of some deceptive preparation by artificial means; … nor is it without the most minute and rigid examination that we can persuade ourselves of its being the real beak or snout of a quadruped.’

In other words, Shaw suspected that some mischievous soul might be pulling his leg.

The surgeon Robert Knox argued in 1823 that because the specimens arrived in England via the Indian Ocean, naturalists suspected that Chinese sailors, who were well known for their skill at stitching together hybrid creatures, might have been playing some kind of joke upon them:

‘They reached England by vessels which had navigated the Indian seas, a circumstance in itself sufficient to rouse the suspicions of the scientific naturalist, aware of the monstrous impostures which the artful Chinese had so frequently practised on European adventurers; in short, the scientific felt inclined to class this rare production of nature with eastern mermaids and other works of art; but these conjectures were immediately dispelled by an appeal to anatomy.’

In all fairness it’s little wonder that British naturalists had their doubts: the platypus is seriously weird.  With a bill like a duck, skin and feet like an otter and a tail like a beaver its appearance suggests it was created from bits and pieces found gathering dust in a bankrupt taxidermist’s workshop.

To add to his oddball qualities Mr Platypus has special spurs on his hind feet that he can use to defend himself by injecting poison into a predator.  And then, or course, there’s the small matter of being a montreme.  This means that like the echidna, but unlike anything else in existence anywhere, Mrs Platypus is a mammal who lays eggs rather than giving birth to live young.

If ever there was an odd couple, Mr and Mrs P are that couple.

And the weirdness doesn’t stop there.  This film courtesy of National Geographic describes another oddball platypus feature, an electro-location system in its bill that enables it to hunt underwater in zero visibility. Useful.  What a pity I can’t have a similar adaptation to my snout that would enable me to find my car keys when I’m late for work.

The platypus is no hoax … nobody with an ounce of sense could make it up and hope to get away with it.  Despite that, or perhaps because of it, seeing is believing and I badly need to see one.  Thanks to Susie from Tasmanian Odyssey, who kindly pointed out in our final itinerary all the platypus hotspots we’ll be visiting, our chances appear good.  I’ll keep you posted.

Author: Platypus Man

"Platypus" is a red herring: I'm English, although my blogging career began in my record of a 2016 road trip to Tasmania. Other blogs followed covering road trips in Newfoundland (2017), the Yellowstone area of the USA (2018) and New Zealand (2019). My current project is "Now I'm 64" , a weekly blog covering UK travel and wildlife, along with bits of history, social commentary and moans about the injustice of aging. I can guarantee a few laughs, and also the occasional rant. Some of it's even quite well written!

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